Over 50,000 tonnes of used textiles are collected in Switzerland every year. The EU produced 6.8 million tonnes of textile waste in 2019, around half of which was resold and exported. It is therefore difficult to quantify the proportion of items of clothing that are, in fact, reused. What is certain is that an ever-increasing proportion is diverted directly to inferior and short-lived uses or burned to produce heat. To put it bluntly: textile materials disappear irretrievably from the reusable materials cycle.
While petroleum-based raw materials for synthetic textiles are set to become scarce in the long term, climate change and pandemic/crisis-induced disruptions of global supply chains already limit supply security today. To future-proof textile production, we need to develop new sources of raw materials. Converting used clothes into raw materials for new textiles is one way of doing this; it is what the Texcircle research project run by the Product and Textile Research Group at the Lucerne School of Art and Design is all about. The aim is to close the life cycle of textile products so that the original materials can be efficiently reused as raw materials for new, high-quality products. The project examines and optimises recycling processes and rethinks existing value chains. Working alongside industry partners, Texcircle defines fibre compositions, machine settings and new product cycles.
Design is key
Designers play a key role in the circular economy, as 80% of decisions related to sustainability are made during the design phase (source: EU Commission). Today’s textile products should no longer become waste, but instead turned into new raw materials through the development of recycled materials in a bid to counteract the steadily increasing production of fibre. The project takes a design-centric perspective: process steps were being rethought and the role of designers expanded. Among other things, the project came up with a “Design Decision Tool” that enables designers to make informed decisions when developing circular product concepts.
Upcycling, not downcycling
Today, the reuse of textiles is generally limited to downcycling processes such as turning old T-shirts into cleaning cloths. In this process, elaborately produced resources are briefly reused, but then lost forever. This is not good enough—textile waste should be processed in a way that adds value. But there are challenges: fibre blends in textiles make high-quality recycling more difficult, and the sorting and processing of used textiles (e.g., the removal of foreign materials) is currently largely done by hand. The project tested a variety of sorting and processing methods and examined mechanical recycling processes and associated secondary fibre blending processes in yarns and fleece products. To assess feasibility and validate prototypes, the project conducted experiments on an industrial scale whenever possible—an approach that ensures the future scalability of concepts.
Change is only possible by working together
One single company will not be able to address the challenges of a functioning circular economy—this was one of the conclusions drawn from the predecessor project, Texcycle. A local cluster, on the other hand, increases leverage. This led to the formation of the “Texcircle” cluster, consisting of Swiss and international companies in the field of textile manufacturing and textile recycling. The project partners joined forces by contributing their know-how, areas of expertise, funding and materials. Contributors include Coop, Rieter, Rohner Socks, Ruckstuhl, Texaid and Workfashion. Other network partners include the Federal Office of Civilian Service (ZIVI), Nikin and Tiger Liz Textiles. The project has received additional support through collaborations with Swiss firms such as Jakob Härdi AG and international companies such as Marchi & Fildi. It is being funded by the Swiss Innovation agency Innosuisse.